What is a Human Being? Part 2

Several weeks ago I posted some thoughts regarding the Christian view of human nature in light of the current transgender movement and our culture’s increasingly confused approach to gender, sexuality, and identity. You can find that post here. There I focused on Genesis 1:27 and the foundational truth it reveals about human beings: namely, that we are created in the image of God and that we are created male and female. Having been created by God, of course, means that we receive and do not manufacture our identity as human beings. There is a fundamental sense in which we do not get to choose what we are. Having been created male and female means that there is a binary reality to gender and human identity, contrary to what many are presently trying to assert. Given that the debate surrounding the questions of gender identity and sexuality permeates our culture, those of who are Christians, who hold to what we might call a traditional view of human sexuality, have an obligation to think through these questions as thoughtfully and as sensitively as we are able. This means having a robustly biblical understanding of what it means to be a human being.

I have no doubt that there are people who experience a sense of who they are that does not conform to the biblical understanding of sexuality, gender, and personhood. Furthermore, I have no doubt, for example, that people who experience same-sex attraction are genuinely attracted to those of the same biological sex and that such feelings are not under their control any more than my attraction is to those of the opposite sex. As it is, I don’t decide to experience an attraction to my wife (or other women I find attractive); I simply experience it. For this reason, it is understandable to ask: If someone’s inner-sense of self doesn’t conform to their biological sex or if someone is attracted to a person of the same biological sex, doesn’t this mean that God made them this way? And if that’s so, doesn’t that mean we simply ought to affirm without question any given individual’s inner-sense of self? If someone is created in the image of God, doesn’t this include the inner-sense of self experienced by those, for instance, who describe themselves as transgender? Were such persons not, as the song says, born this way? Didn’t God intend some people to live out their lives as transgendered? If someone is born with same-sex attraction, doesn’t that mean God intends them to pursue relationships with people of the same biological sex?

It is at this point that many might expect me to quote the various passages in Scripture that refer to sexual activity between two people of the same biological sex as sinful. But those passages, while important, are often weaponized or simply quoted without placing them within the larger biblical understanding of human nature and personhood. Because even though I do think Scripture forbids same-sex sexual intimacy, this is not the only kind of sexual activity the Bible forbids as out of step with God’s created intent for his human creatures. In point of fact, the only biblically rightful place for sexual intimacy is in the marriage covenant between one man and one woman. Sexual activity with someone other than your spouse is sin. Sex outside of marriage, even with someone of the opposite biological sex, is also sin. Whatever what someone believes about sexuality and gender identity, it is within this biblical horizon that I approach the questions about them.

Within this biblical horizon not only is it true that human beings are created in the imago Dei and as male and female but God, having created human beings, pronounces them very good. And this very good concerns not only their initial creation but the purpose for which God made them: to be his stewards in the world, his representatives to the rest of creation. To the degree humanity fulfills its telos, humanity is very good. Living in right relationship with God, creation, and one another is what it means to live according to God’s purposes for us. And if there is a right way to live in relation to God and one another, there is also a wrong way. Not every available way for human beings to live in relationship to one another in this world conforms to the way we were made.

For this reason human beings are also portrayed as having strayed from the purposes with which they have been designed by the Creator. The primordial sin is not sexual but it does have consequences for our sexuality (and every other aspect of our humanity). In Genesis 3 the character of the serpent–described as crafty or shrewd–plants the seeds of doubt about God’s trustworthiness first in the mind of the woman. Referring to God’s command not to eat the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the serpent deceitfully intones, “Did God really say, ‘You can’t eat from any tree in the garden’?” It is the first half of the question that carries the weight of the whole: Did God really say? In other words, the serpent cunningly asks, “Are you sure God can be trusted? Maybe you’re better off making decisions about your life without regard to this God who seems so intent on putting obstacles in the way of your self-fulfillment.” Alas, both the man and the woman agree. So, sin enters creation.

This story doesn’t fit our current secular cultural narrative. Sin is very nearly an extinct term. Bringing it up rudely interrupts the ongoing liberal project of progress towards some kind of human utopia. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that to many it is a term of disparagement. After all, people are intrinsically good. With enough proper, government-approved education and technological advancements, we can engineer people and therefore society to fit the mold of our best intentions. Raising the spectre of sin casts doubt on how people in our world either see themselves or are told to see themselves. Not to mention that it raises the undesirable possibility that our questions and predicaments demand answers from a transcendent source. And we can’t have that.

Contrary to the narrative much of the world wants to assert as true, the Scriptures of both the Old and New Testament boldly assert that all human beings are lost, broken, and sinful. We enter the world already in need of rescue and repair. And what we’re talking about here is how each of us has in effect listened to the serpent and is therefore inclined to pursue a sense of identity and meaning apart from reference to a divine Creator and Redeemer. And this includes the way in which we understand and live out what it means to be sexual, gendered creatures. If someone experiences an inner-sense of self where they feel like a man trapped in a woman’s body, this doesn’t mean they ought to identify as a man and live accordingly. Put simply, to be born this way doesn’t mean we ought to live that way.

So when we speak of sin, we’re not only talking about particular actions or examples of behaviours. We’re talking about a disposition or moral orientation that all human beings share. Obedience to and faith in God is not our natural inclination. This means that even if someone by all appearances is a good person, this doesn’t mean they are not sinful. An individual can exhibit positive character traits, be a good neighbour and citizen, for reasons other than a genuine desire to love. We can act virtuously for selfish reasons. Of course, even if we act virtuously for good reasons, our motivations are never entirely pure or unselfish. It is this sinful inclination of our hearts that manifests in various actions and attitudes that betray our underlying lack of faith in or contempt for God and his purposes for us. Not only do we sin, we are sinful; and the latter precedes the former.

We see this in Romans 1. There, speaking first of God, the apostle Paul says that his invisible attributes, that is, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what he has made. As a result, people are without excuse. For though they knew God, they did not glorify him as God or show gratitude. Instead, their thinking became worthless, and their senseless hearts were darkened. . . .Therefore God delivered them over in the desires of their hearts to sexual impurity, so that their bodies were degraded among themselves. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served what has been created instead of the Creator, who is praised forever. Amen. A rejection of God and his purposes for us leads to idolatry, disordered loves, and thinking unanchored in the purposes embedded in the fabric of creation.

It is after Paul says this he goes one to say that God delivered them over to disgraceful passions. Their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones.  The men in the same way also left natural relations with women and were inflamed in their lust for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the appropriate penalty of their error. And lest we think that Paul only refers to sexual sin, he goes on: And because they did not think it worthwhile to acknowledge God, God delivered them over to a corrupt mind so that they do what is not right. They are filled with all unrighteousness, evil, greed, and wickedness. They are full of envy, murder, quarrels, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, arrogant, proud, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, senseless, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful. Although they know God’s just sentence—that those who practice such things deserve to die—they not only do them, but even applaud others who practice them. Much can be said about these verses from Romans 1, but what’s clear is that rejecting God leads to a proliferation of sin among human beings. Such sin includes but isn’t limited to sin that involves our sexuality. All this to say that even if someone is born with (or comes to experience) an inner-sense of self that doesn’t match their biological sex, this does not mean that God designed them to be a transgendered person. It doesn’t mean that it is God’s will for a man to transition, with or without medical intervention, to being a woman or vice-versa.

I understand that what I’ve said will be rejected by some. Others will find it hard to hear. And I should also point out that I am not a scientist, doctor, or any kind of medical expert, so I cannot pretend to understand fully the complexities of transgenderism or other gender identity issues. I also want to make clear that I think it is absolutely possible and crucial for those with a traditional biblical understanding of personhood and gender to demonstrate love and compassion to those who identify as transgender or as a gender other than male or female. Not everyone will agree. Instead, the current thinking leans towards seeing the wholesale acceptance of any and every gender expression as essential to what it means to love and have compassion. According to this perspective, seeing such gender expressions as manifestations of our broken and sinful human nature is, therefore, intolerant and hateful. Is it any wonder, then, that public discourse around these sensitive subjects are often so polarizing? What we have here is one example of the clash of worldviews that is at play between Christianity (or even religious theism in general) and a culture that is unmoored from any discernible ethical foundation.

According to Scripture, human beings are created in the image of God with value and purpose. And human beings are created either male or female. Each of us also has a sinful human nature, one which inclines us to pursue lives out of step with God’s telos (or ultimate purpose) for us. So we each need forgiveness. We need God’s healing power in the midst of our brokenness. The God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is actively at work seeking to redeem each of us out of the mess into which we have gotten ourselves. And while we each experience this mess in different ways, it is into our collective mess that Christ comes to effect the spiritual transformation that will enable us to become the human beings we were always created to be. When time permits, it is to this spiritual transformation and what it means that we will turn next.

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Living Now with Eternity in Mind #2: Living as Holy

Therefore, with your minds ready for action, be sober-minded and set your hope completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the desires of your former ignorance. But as the one who called you is holy, you also are to be holy in all your conduct; for it is written, “Be holy, because I am holy.” If you appeal to the Father who judges impartially according to each one’s work, you are to conduct yourselves in reverence during your time living as strangers. For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of an unblemished and spotless lamb. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was revealed in these last times for you. Through him you believe in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

1 Peter 1:13-21

A number of few years ago the Catholic Church declared the late Mother Teresa to be a saint. Because I grew up Roman Catholic, I heard a lot about saints. Saints were the Christians who were especially holy. In the NT all believers are saints. And the noun ‘saint’ comes from the Greek verb which means “to make holy.”

But what does it mean to be holy? Some of you might remember when they used to say things like, “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, and don’t go with girls (or boys!) who do.” There are people who see going to church and being a Christian as a set of dos and don’ts, rules and regulations. For some people, holiness is about morality. The better your behaviour, the holier you are.

At the centre of our passage this morning Peter writes, as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct. And this certainly makes it sound like a matter of our behaviour. So this morning we’re going to talk a little bit about what it means to be holy. Because Peter is here calling his readers to live as holy as God is holy. The question is: what does he mean?

Psalm 99:9 says: Exalt the Lord our God,
    and worship at his holy mountain;
    for the Lord our God is holy!

If the Scriptures teach us anything about God, it is this: God is holy. God is other than creation. God is utterly distinct from all that he has made. God is perfect in every way. There is no comparison between God and anything else. In Isaiah 43:3 God says: For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.

According to Peter, it’s because God is holy that we’re called to be holy. As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”  In fact, this has been the case ever since God called the Israelites to be his people. Peter is quoting Leviticus 19:2 where it says: Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, you shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.

So, we need to think about the word holy. What does it mean? And how is it remotely possible that we who are sinful and finite can be holy as God is holy? Joel Scandrett, in his article, “What does God mean when he asks us to be holy as he is holy?” says, “The most basic meaning of the word is to be “set apart” or “dedicated” to God—to belong to God.” He goes on to write that “biblical holiness describes a unique relationship that God has established and desires with his people . . . As long as our notions of holiness are limited to doing certain things and not doing other things, we can go through our entire lives obeying the rules (or at least maintaining the appearance of doing so) without dealing with far more fundamental questions: Whose are we? To whom do we give our first love and loyalty? God’s call to be holy is a radical, all-encompassing claim on our lives, our loves, and our very identities. To be holy means that all we are and all we have belongs to God, not ourselves, and that every aspect of our lives is to be shaped and directed toward God.”

Put simply: Living as holy means belonging to God. This is why Peter tells his readers: Be holy in all your conduct. It’s not only about behaviour but about the fact that we belong to God from start to finish and in every which way: our finances, our relationships, our attitude towards our possessions, how we participate in our community, what our priorities are for ourselves and our families.

Peter’s audience had once been largely pagan, following pagan religions, participating in pagan cultural life with their neighbours. Becoming followers of Jesus meant a complete 1800 turn. It meant a much more clearly radical break from the societal norms around them. It’s why he says to them: Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance and you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers.

For many of us the contrast might not seem as obvious or glaring. Many of us grew up in a culture that was deeply shaped by Christian values and moral standards. Many people in our culture, even if they didn’t grow up Christian, more or less seemed to live as if they had.

In some ways, this is a disadvantage to us because when we’ve lived in this kind of culture we can easily lose the sense of what it means to be distinctly Christian. Cultural values become so intertwined and perhaps even confused with biblical values that we can underestimate or misunderstand the seriousness of the commitment Christ calls us to make.

What does it mean to be holy? What does it mean to belong to God? Am I living a holy life, one that is distinct from my neighbours? How can I tell?

One of the themes of 1 Peter is hope. Peter relates our future hope to how we live now: Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. When Peter talks about preparing your minds for action, it literally means, “Gird up your loins for action.” It’s a vivid metaphor of a Middle-eastern worker preparing for action by hitching up his robes so as not to be impeded. Norman Hillyer says that “Peter is referring to a Christ-centered attitude of mind that shapes and directs personal conduct.” So being holy does involve our conduct. How we live matters. But “girding up our loins” requires hope. Peter makes this clear. Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. To act as holy people in the present—to live as people who belong to God—we have to have confidence in our future: hope.

Living as holy is only possible because of the hope I have in Christ. The reason is this: being holy in an unholy world can be difficult, challenging, unrewarding, and painful. That was certainly true for Peter’s first century readers. And I think it might increasingly so for us. As the values and accepted norms of our surrounding culture diverge more and more from biblical norms and values, it will become more and more challenging and noticeable when we live distinctly Christian lives.

So our hope is that whatever happens to us because of our allegiance to Jesus in this life, God has our future—our eternal, good, life-filled future—in his hands. Our hope makes our holiness possible.

When you think of our community, in what ways do its values and norms diverge from your understanding of biblical norms and values? What does being holy have to do with suffering? How is our hope in Christ important for living holy lives now?

So, in the end what really makes us holy? Again, if you were to ask people on the street, I bet most of the answers would have to do with our actions: our good behaviour, whether we go to church, whether we stay away from bad people, places, and things. And if we do all the supposedly right things someone might call us holy, or even “holier-than-thou.” The problem is that this makes it all about us.

But if we make holiness primarily not about behaviour but about to whom we belong, then we get a different answer. We talked about living as holy as meaning that we belong to God. The question is this: what makes it possible for us to belong to God?

Peter tells us. He says: You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

Our belonging to God, and therefore our living as holy, is only possible because of what God has done through Jesus. In other words: Living as holy is about what God has done in Christ not what we do.Peter tells us that we believe in God through him. He says that it’s because of the resurrection of Jesus that your faith and hope are in God. We were ransomed from [our] futile ways . . . with the precious blood of Christ.

You could say this: the first step towards living a holy life is realizing we are far from holy. It’s in realizing that left to ourselves we would be far from God. Jesus brings us near to God. Makes it possible for us to belong to God. And our holiness largely consists in our realizing and accepting our need for Jesus and what he’s done. Because it is our faith and our hope that make us distinct from those around us.

How do most people see holiness? What really makes us holy? Is our holiness mostly about our behaviour or about belonging to God? Does this make it easier or more difficult to live a holy life?How might God be calling you to a more holy and distinct life?

Here’s the thing: I’m sure every single one of us can find at least a few people who aren’t Christian who live more exemplary lives than some Christians you know. They’re better neighbours, more generous, kinder, more active in their community. Does that make them holier?Holiness includes our behaviour but is about much more than our behaviour. We are holy because we belong to God. We are holy because of our hope in God. We are holy because we’ve been brought to God through Jesus.

Living Now with Eternity in Mind#1: Living with Hope

This is the first of a series of sermons I preached a number of years ago on 1 Peter. Looking at my files, I realized that some are missing. It’s possible that some are missing because my laptop wasn’t working and in for repairs and therefore prepared my notes by hand. So I will post the ones I have that (I think) are worth sharing over the next several days. I hope that they bless and encourage you.

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ:
To those chosen, living as exiles dispersed abroad in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, to be obedient and to be sprinkled with the blood of Jesus Christ.
May grace and peace be multiplied to you.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. You are being guarded by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. You rejoice in this, even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials so that the proven character of your faith—more valuable than gold which, though perishable, is refined by fire—may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who prophesied about the grace that would come to you, searched and carefully investigated. They inquired into what time or what circumstances the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified in advance to the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you. These things have now been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—angels long to catch a glimpse of these things.

1 Peter 1:1-12

What is hope? To answer that question, let me ask another one: do you like getting something in the mail? Or have you ever opened your mailbox just hoping that maybe—just maybe—there’s something in it for you? Now, here’s the thing. This can happen in two ways. I can just go to my mailbox hoping that maybe there’s something there for me. Maybe somebody sent me a surprise. Usually I’m disappointed! But there’s another way this can happen. There’s that feeling I get when I’ve placed an order with Amazon and I’m waiting for it to arrive. So I know something’s coming. Usually books. Unless something goes wrong with the order or with Canada Post, I can be sure there is something on its way to my mailbox.  So what is hope? Is hope going to my mailbox and not knowing if something is there or not but wishing there will be? Or is hope like waiting for an Amazon order that is definitely on its way? We often use the word “hope” in the first sense. What might it mean to have hope in the second sense? What difference might that make?

You know, in our world, people need hope. Hope beyond their circumstances. Hope beyond our flawed and often disappointing political leaders. Hope beyond cancer and other sicknesses. We need hope. Jeff Goins writes: “As humans, we need hope. We can’t live without it. It is the lifeblood to our spiritual survival, and the only thing that pulls us out of the deep trenches of the pain and hurt of life.” And whether we realize it or not, we all put our hope in something. So it’s not a question of whether or not we have hope—but where does our hope come from? What is our hope in?

1 Peter tells us much about hope. Our passage begins with Peter telling his readers that God has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He calls it a living hope. What does this mean? In the Ashbury Bible Commentary, it says: “Those who are reborn have a hope that animates their present lives . . . rebirth equips Christians with the ability to see all of life in the light of the glory to be revealed when Christ returns.” The hope we have should change the way we live—and really be a living hope.

What we hope for changes how we live. Our hope represents how our beliefs about our future impacts our present. When I was growing up my mother would sometimes enter these Reader’s Digest Sweepstakes contests. Other people play the lottery or gamble in other ways. Now, I realize that not everyone who plays these games puts all of their hope in winning, but what of those who do? How does that affect the way they live in the present?

In our passage, there are many things that show Peter was pointing his readers to the future: He mentions a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. The last time here means exactly that. He talks about the revelation of Jesus Christ. When Peter speaks of this, he means when Jesus is finally and fully revealed in all his glory at the last time. He tells them about the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. And, yes, we can be saved now. But we will receive the fullness of our salvation only at the last time. Even the OT prophets who prophesied about the Messiah did so with the future in mind and therefore in hope. He says about the prophets: It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you.

But as he talks about hope, he does so with confidence. This isn’t wishful thinking. And Peter wants believers in Asia Minor to have a confident hope because they were living in the Roman Empire in difficult circumstances. They couldn’t trust that their circumstances would necessarily get better. But they could trust that whatever their circumstances, God has something more in mind for their future.

Let’s put it this way: Living with hope means having confidence in our future. How many people experience hopelessness? How many people feel trapped in their present circumstances unable to see a way out? How many people really don’t think there is good in their future? They feel like having confidence that things could get better is impossible, maybe even laughable.

For Peter’s readers—and for us—to live now with eternity in mind means to believe that God will one day vindicate those who trust in him. Even though his readers were being ostracized in the present, it would not always be that way. Hope in our future gives us freedom in the present. To think about it in terms of identity, as we talked about last week, we’re invited and called to be hopeful people.

What is the difference between wishful thinking and hope? When we have confidence in our future, how does that help us live in the present?How would you describe your hope to someone else? Is yours a confident hope? Why or why not?

Hope is the thing with feathers 
That perches in the soul 
And sings the tune without the words 
And never stops at all.

Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s poem suggests to us that hope—genuine hope—isn’t conditioned by our circumstances but is real regardless of circumstances. It perches in the soul, sings the tune, and never stops at all. Hope is something we need in difficult circumstances that arise because of our commitment to Jesus. Peter’s readers were experiencing difficult circumstances. They were outcasts in their community. Suffering is a major theme of this letter.

And in our passage, Peter refers to this when he says in verses 6—7: In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 

Peter’s readers—the believers in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia—need hope because, as he says, they have been grieved by various trials. But he seeks to help to put their trials in context. He wants them to see their trials as evidence that God is up to something in their lives. This is a test of your faith, he says. It will result in praise, glory, and honor, he tells them. Because such trials can be discouraging, he wants to encourage them with words of hope. Peter was calling his readers to stick to their faith until the end.

You might have noticed that postage stamps keep getting more expensive. But at least they have one quality that most of us could stand to imitate: they stick to one thing until they get there. We call that perseverance. We’re called to do likewise: to stick to one thing until we get there! And it our confident hope in the future God has for us that makes this possible. When you have a confident hope that God has a good future in store for you, it becomes possible to persevere—to stick with it—until that future comes to pass.

Listen to what the apostle Paul says in Romans 5:3—5: Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope,and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

To put it another way, suffering is the context for hope. Or in other words, living with hope enables us to persevere during suffering.Why is hope important to you? What helps us become more and more like postage stamps, to stick with it until we get there? How might having hope enable you to deal with times of suffering? What are some ways people around you need hope? Can you share your hope with them?

When I married my wife and we were about to move out of her parents’ house, her Dad told me, “When you married her, you married everything she owns.” And her parents more or less let us know that this would pretty much be all we get for an inheritance! And when my mother died, there was no inheritance waiting for me.

Our passage talks about an inheritance. Peter describes it this way: an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. It is this inheritance that we are invited to hope for, Peter says. And so, the natural question is this: what is this inheritance and how can we get it?

Peter tells us that God has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. And it’s being born again that secures our inheritance. And being born again is what happens when we come to faith in Jesus. And all of this—every little bit of it—is possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. Our hope is based on the actual, historical, and physical resurrection from the dead of the person of Jesus. His resurrection tells us that this life—one often filled with trials and difficulties and suffering—is not all there is. His resurrection tells us that God has a better story in mind for us. His resurrection is what gives us hope.

In his discussion about resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul says if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins . . . [and] If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied. Our inheritance is resurrection like Jesus. Living with hope is only possible because of Jesus and his resurrection. Apart from Christ, we have no hope. Apart from Christ, all we have is wishful thinking. What does it mean that God has an inheritance in store for us? How do we receive this inheritance?Do you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead? Why is his resurrection so important?What are you hoping for? What gives you hope? Is your hope in Jesus and his resurrection?

Wilderness #1: Entering the Wilderness

During the season of Lent in 2018, I preached a series called “Wilderness: Growing in Faith When Life is Hard.” This is the first of the series of five sermons. Over the next five days (or so) I will post them all here. I have no doubt that there are many who feel as though they have been and are in a wilderness of some kind. I pray these posts will be helpful and encouraging.

Remember that the Lord your God led you on the entire journey these forty years in the wilderness, so that he might humble you and test you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you by letting you go hungry; then he gave you manna to eat, which you and your ancestors had not known, so that you might learn that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Deuteronomy 8:2—3

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. After he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. Then the tempter approached him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” He answered, “It is written: Man must not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Matthew 4:1—4
Sinai desert

Does this look like an inviting place to be? How much how time would you like to spend here? This is the Sinai wilderness where the Israelites wandered for 40 years as they learned to trust and know God and his ways. When we hear the word wilderness, we hear deserted, dry, barren, desolate. The word Yeshimon is the most common Hebrew name given to the wilderness of Judea. It can be translated as “the devastation.” Again, not very inviting. Since you and I will obviously never wander for any length of time in an actual desert, what does it mean for us?

In his book A Way Through the Wilderness, Rob Renfroe says this: “In the Scriptures, wilderness is used to describe a time in a person’s life when his or her soul is parched and dry; when today is hard and the future appears barren . . . You may even feel bereft of God’s presence.” We can see this in Psalm 63:1. There the psalmist begins his prayer: O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. We hear that and maybe we ask, “What’s the point of that? Why would God allow that to happen to anyone?”

British journalist and satirist Malcolm Muggeridge, who became a Christian later in life, wrote: “Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at the time seemed especially desolating and painful with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my experience, has been through affliction and not through happiness.”

Now, I don’t know if I completely agree with Muggeridge. Not everything I have learned has been from times of pain and suffering. I have also learned from the joys of life. But I do think we can learn from the difficulties of life. And many testify that it is often in these times that they actually grow closest to God. But the simple truth is this: We all find ourselves in the wilderness at some point. When circumstances befall us, for whatever reason, that seriously challenges our trust in God, our confidence in his goodness, our assurance of his presence, we are in the wilderness. The key question is this: Who will you be when this difficult time is over? When you come out of the other side of the wilderness, who will you have become?

Deuteronomy is a sermon. Its words are Moses’ last words before the people of Israel enter the land of Canaan, the Promised Land. So, this comes at the end of their wilderness wanderings. Our passage from Deuteronomy 8 begins this way: And you shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness. So much hinges on perspective. How am I interpreting my circumstances? Because the perspective I have will determine how I deal with being in the wilderness and how I relate to God while I’m there.  Notice that the Israelites were led by the Lord into and through the wilderness. And notice where Moses says: God humbled you and let you hunger. How does that strike you? Isn’t God our provider? Don’t we pray, Give us this day our daily bread? Doesn’t our faith in Christ promise abundant life?

Of course, God didn’t let the Israelites starve to death. Moses told them that he fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know. Sometimes when we’re low on groceries and have to wait a day or two to shop, we’re stuck eating food that’s not exactly our favourite. So maybe this isn’t the food, the provision, you’re accustomed to having, but you’re still getting fed.

That God allows us to enter a wilderness—and that he sometimes leads us into one—means that God’s agenda, his purpose for us, can be very different from our own. What I want for my life, what I want for me and for my family, may not always be what God wants.

But this also means that even if we find it difficult to understand, God is with us in the wilderness. God led the Israelites the whole way during their 40 years in the Sinai desert. While they abandoned him plenty of times, he never abandoned them. God doesn’t just lead us to the wilderness, he leads us through the wilderness.

Let me ask: Have you ever found yourself in a spiritual wilderness? What led to it? How would you describe your experience?How did you relate to God during this time? Did he seem near or far away?

But why? Why the wilderness? Moses says to the Israelites: the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. So, there’s the crux: testing you to know what was in your heart. Who are you? What’s going on in your heart?

Ever notice how adversity and difficult times have a way of testing you? They can reveal areas of our lives and hearts that are not as they should be. Rather than focus on what’s going on around me, God wants to deal with what’s going on inside of me. God isn’t so much a problem fixer as he is a people changer.

Often when we find ourselves in a wilderness, we want out. We want God to fix it. We want it to go away. But in those times God also wants us to pay attention to ourselves: our attitudes, our feelings, the way we process and deal with our circumstances. We can put it this way: God leads us into the wilderness to reveal who we are. And often this is about showing us who we are. Most of us need to become more self-aware of what’s going on in our hearts.

Like it or not, God wants to stir up stuff. There’s stuff in us and in our lives that he wants to deal with. There’s stuff in us and in our lives that keeps us from loving and trusting him more. And God is not content to leave us this way. This means that the wilderness is the means God uses to deepen our trust in him. Like our passage says, the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness . . . testing you to know . . . whether you would keep his commandments or not.

Whenever the Israelites disobeyed, their disobedience revealed who they really were: people who didn’t really trust God, that he knew what was best for them and that he was good. Trust and obedience go hand in hand. God leads us into the wilderness to reveal who we are. Let me ask:  What keeps you from loving and trusting God more? How has your wilderness revealed more about you? Do you trust God enough to let him stir up stuff that makes you uncomfortable? Why or why not?

You see, here’s the thing: God’s goal is not our happiness but our Christlikeness. God is seeking to make us like his Son. In Romans 8:29 Paul tells us that God wants us to be conformed to the image of his Son. You might recall that Jesus also spent time in the wilderness. In Matthew 4:1—4 it says:  Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

So, first, notice that it was the Spirit of God that led Jesus into the wilderness. And then look at the first temptation: And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” And how did Jesus answer? “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

And do you know what Scripture Jesus is quoting? He is quoting our passage from Deuteronomy where it says God allowed his people to experience the wilderness so that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every wordthat comes from the mouth of the Lord. When faced with his own wilderness, Jesus trusted his Father, even in the wilderness, even when he found himself hungry and alone. God wants us to learn to trust him in the same way. God leads us into the wilderness to make us more like his Son Jesus.

Rob Renfroe says this: “God uses the wilderness to prepare his people. God uses the difficult, desperate times of our lives to teach us important lessons and develop our character, making us into the image of his Son, so that we will be ready for the future and equipped to be his instruments in a hurting and broken world.” Or as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:3—4:  Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.

You probably know how porcelain is made. A piece of clay pottery is put into a kiln at incredibly high temperatures. Once done, porcelain is much stronger and more resilient than clay. A clay pot sitting in the sun will always be a clay pot. It has to go through the white heat of the furnace to become porcelain. The wilderness is a spiritual furnace. God wants us to make us into porcelain. The key question is: When you come out of the other side of the wilderness, who will you be?

And remember why God allows us to enter the wilderness. He’s making us, shaping us, remolding us, restoring us. Though we find ourselves in a wilderness, we can trust in his word. In Isaiah 43:19 it says:

Behold, I am doing a new thing;
    now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert.

Prayer #9: Praying When You’re Worried

Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? Consider the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? Can any of you add one moment to his life span by worrying? And why do you worry about clothes? Observe how the wildflowers of the field grow: They don’t labor or spin thread. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these. If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t he do much more for you—you of little faith? So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Matthew 6:25-34

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

Two business executives meet at for lunch. The first, Gene, asks “How’s your health?” Ed says, “I feel great! My ulcers are gone. And I don’t have a care in the world!” Gene says, “How did that happen?” Ed says, “Well, you know my doctor told me my ulcers were caused from worrying. So, I hired myself a professional worrier. Whenever something worrisome comes up, I turn it over to him, and he does all my worrying for me!” Gene says, “Wow, I’d like to hire someone like that! How much does he charge?” Ed says “One hundred thousand dollars!” Gene asks, “How in the world can you afford $100,000?” Ed says, “I don’t know. I let him worry about that!”

When was the last time you felt anxious and worried? Today? Yesterday? In the last week or month? About what? The reality is: we do worry. We get anxious about things. Worrying is normal. But the Bible also tells us not to worry and be anxious. How do handle you worry and anxiety? Do you dwell on them, distract yourself from them, or pray to God about them?

In the study notes of the Christian Standard Bible translation, it says that “Prayer is the antidote for worry.” This sounds good. But how is prayer the antidote for worry? We’re going to talk about who we pray to, what we pray about, and what results from our prayer.

When Jesus talks about our worries, he acknowledges that we do get anxious. But he doesn’t want us facing life the way everyone else does. He invites us to handle our worries differently. He points us, like Paul, to our heavenly Father. Jesus says: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Paul says: Don’t worry about anything.

When we pray to God, we’re reminding ourselves of who God is and what he is like. Speaking of things like food and clothing, Jesus says that your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Paul tells us to pray instead of worry. We’re not going to trust God with our worries if we don’t trust his character. This is why rooting our prayer in the character of God is so vitally important. There’s a huge difference between seeing God as a loving, gracious Father who wants the best for you and seeing him as being out to get you, to judge and condemn you at the first opportunity because you didn’t try hard enough. Which picture of God provides a greater incentive to pray when you’re worried?

It is about faith, about how much we really do trust God. But it’s not about faith as an accomplishment. Sometimes we can berate ourselves for not having enough faith, that we are spiritual failures. We get anxious over whether we have enough faith. That’s not the posture Jesus invites us to have. It’s not how much faith we have, but who our faith is in.

Paul was in prison went he wrote Philippians—considered his most joy-filled letter. He wrote these words even when his circumstances were difficult. Having the peace of God doesn’t necessarily mean having peaceful circumstances. Paul had the peace of God even though he was imprisoned for his faith. Don’t worry about anything, but in everything . . . present your requests to God. He’s saying that there’s nothing we can’t pray about. And if something is significant enough to worry about, it’s important enough to pray about.

Corrie Ten Bloom put it this way: “Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden.” It’s about bringing our whole lives before God. It’s realizing he cares about all of our lives—all the details matter to him. It’s not possible to bother God or to exhaust his patience.

Paul also tells us to bring our prayers before God with thanksgiving. This means reminding ourselves that all of our blessings come from God. He is always our provider whether we acknowledge it or not. It reminds us of the goodness of God (James 1:17). It brings us back to trusting in the character of God.

So what does Paul say will happen when we pray as he instructs? And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Notice, first, what Paul doesn’t say will happen. He doesn’t say God is going to answer all of our prayers in the way that we hope he will. So the peace he’s talking about isn’t the result of answered prayers. The idea of the peace of God refers to an inner-sense of comfort and contentment from God despite circumstances. Peace is also a fruit of the Spirit. The Philippians were probably experiencing harassment and opposition. Their anxiety arose because of their surrounding situation. They were living their faith in less than hospitable circumstances.

I love this quote: “Our prayer to the God who is totally trustworthy is accompanied by his peace, not because he answers according to our wishes but because his peace totally transcends our merely human way of perceiving the world.”

Listen to these words from Tony Wood and Kevin Stokes:

Sometimes He calms the storm
With a whispered “peace be still”
He can settle any sea
But it doesn’t mean He will
Sometimes He holds us close
And lets the wind and waves go wild
Sometimes He calms the storm
And other times He calms His child

Here’s the thing: some of our prayers will not be answered this side of eternity. When we pray, we also recognize that the present is not all there is. This is what makes having the peace of God so important. Having this peace is what can sustain us in a life filled with troubles and worries. This is also why it’s a peace that surpasses all understanding. It’s not a peace that makes sense given our earthly circumstances. That’s why it can only come from God.

The image of our heart (which is the wellspring of our being) being guarded by God’s peace is a military one. It refers to a military garrison. God promises to guard our hearts and minds against those thoughts that threaten our trust in him and keep us from praying to him. When he says that the peace of God . . . will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, he’s saying that knowing Christ, trusting in Christ, relying on Christ—this is our peace. Knowing that no matter what happens, we are still in Christ.

It’s not that someone who trusts Christs will never worry or be anxious. It’s about not having anxious thoughts so dominate us that it hinders our prayers and therefore our trust in the character of our heavenly Father. Worry reveals a heart that is not yet fully surrendered to God—which pretty much describes all of us!

Why do we pray when we’re worried? To remind us of who God is—his character. To bring all of our lives before him—he cares about the details. To experience his peace—so no matter what’s happening, we trust him. The question for you is this: what are you anxious about? Where do you need the peace of God to guard you heart and mind? Are you willing to take a step of trust towards your heavenly Father and turn these worries over to him?

Prayer #6: Praying in Jesus’ Name

Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

John 14:13-14

This is the confidence we have before him: If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked of him.

1 John 5:14-15

What does it mean to do something in someone else’s name? To do something in someone’s name is to identify with that person. If I do something in someone’s name it can mean to take on that person’s authority or to invest my actions with their authority. This important to think about, because we’re called and invited in the Bible—by Jesus—to pray in Jesus’ name. And the name of Jesus is not any name. And this is because Jesus’ name represents who he is. It identifies his character.

Remember Paul’s words in Philippians 2: God highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow—in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. When we think of praying in Jesus’ name, usually we think about including the phrase “in Jesus’ name” (or a version of it) in our prayers between our requests and amen. Is this what it means to pray in Jesus’ name?

In John 14:13—14, Jesus says this to his disciples: Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. There are similar words in John 16:23: Truly I tell you, anything you ask the Father in my name, he will give you. At a superficial glance, Jesus seems to make a pretty big promise here. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. Does he really mean anything?This is why it’s so important to ask: what does to mean to pray in Jesus’ name?

Let’s get right to the point that should seem obvious. Here’s what praying in Jesus’ name does not mean: it doesn’t mean that simply adding these words to the end of your prayer guarantees your desired outcome for the prayer. In other words, the phrase “in Jesus’ name” is not a magic formula. Depending on the rest of your prayer and the attitude behind your prayer, these words can be meaningless and even blasphemous.

Imagine praying for something as trivial as winning Chase the Ace. Adding “in Jesus’ name” at the end wouldn’t guarantee anything. In fact, it’s actually a violation of the spirit and intent behind praying in Jesus’ name. Put simply: Praying in Jesus’ name means praying according to God’s will. When we pray, how often do we ask: What does God want to happen in this situation? What does God want for this person? What is his will for me? Praying in Jesus’ name is to pray for these things.

Jesus’ command to pray in his name also therefore presupposes we are seeking God’s will in our lives, where our desire is that our hearts and lives would be more aligned with his purposes for us. Notice the reason Jesus gives: Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. Hear that? I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. To glorify God means to recognize him for who he is, that he would be acknowledged for who he is. Do we want God to be seen in us and in our lives and in the lives of the people around us? Think of the Lord’s Prayer: Our Father in heaven, your name be honored as holy. Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

How can we know God’s will? Is it our desire to see God’s will done? What do we pray for if we’re praying according to his will? Do you think you pray in Jesus’ name or not? Why?

If I were honest, I would have to say that in my prayers I don’t always pray in the name of Jesus in ways that I should. For example, my prayers don’t always reflect the power and authority of the one in whose name I pray. Think of it this way. In our legal system there is something called the power of attourney. This means that an individual who owns property or money can give control of these things over to someone else. This person acts in the owner’s name and with their authority. This is something of what it means to pray in Jesus’ name. In other words: Praying in Jesus’ name means praying with his authority.

I don’t know if we realize this, but to pray with Jesus’ authority means when we ask in his name, it is as though Jesus himself is making this request of the Father. Notice how praying with Jesus’ authority presupposes praying according to God’s will. Because if I’m praying but not sure if I am praying according to God’s will, I probably won’t pray with a lot of confidence or assurance that he hears me.

Again, if I am honest, there are times when I’ll pray something like, “Lord, if it is your will.” There’s a way that I can use these words to cover my bases, to spiritualize my uncertainty. And while I understand there are times when we pray and we’re not sure what the Lord’s will is, we can pray according to the degree that we do understand his will. And maybe, just maybe, we need to do more work to seek God’s will as revealed in his word. Because here’s the thing: praying in Jesus’ name means praying in a name that is profoundly, infinitely powerful. It means—believe it or not—that we can pray authoritative prayers.

I think of the story in Acts 3. Peter and John were going to the Temple for a time of prayer. A man was begging at the gate. And seeing him, Peter said: I don’t have silver or gold, but what I do have, I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, get up and walk! And the man did. What makes us think that we can’t pray like this anymore? Am I saying that all prayers should be like this? Or that we can pray like this about anything? No. But I think we’ve more or less stopped praying like this at all.

Skye Jethani, in a devotional I read this week on authoritative prayer, wrote this: “We do not pray authoritatively because our prayers always accomplish what we intend. We pray authoritatively because we are God’s children who have been granted access to his power through Christ’s redemption on the cross.” Simply put, praying in Jesus’ name means praying with his authority. This means trusting in the power of Jesus when we pray according to the will of God the Father.

Why does Jesus invite us to pray with his authority?How does knowing God’s will help us to pray with Jesus’ authority?What might keep us from praying with Jesus’ authority? What might help us?

I wonder sometimes: do we really expect God to act on our prayers? Do we anticipate answers or just hope for answers?The last thing to point out is this: Praying in Jesus’ name means praying with the expectation that God will hear and respond. 1 John 5:14 says: This is the confidence we have before him: If we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. So when we pray according to God’s will—in Jesus’ name—we can have confidence that he hears our prayers.

We see something similar in Hebrews 4:16 where it says let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in time of need. Our Father hears our prayers because we ask in Jesus’ name. We pray with confidence because Jesus has made a way for us. When we sincerely pray in Jesus’ name, our Father sees us through the lens of his Son, our Lord Jesus. It is the gospel that gives us confidence in our prayers. We don’t expect answers to prayers, for God our Father to hear us, because of how good we are or how well we’ve obeyed or listened. We expect him to hear because of Jesus. We can be confident in our prayers for the same reason we can be confident of our salvation in Christ and in our relationship with God: because of who he is and what he has done for us.

If my kids ask me for something I want them to have, that I know is for their good, then I am going to do what I can to give that to them. And if we’re praying according to his will, then we can also be confident that God wants to give us what we’re asking for. Only when we have faith in Christ can we pray with this kind of confidence and expectation.

When you pray, would you say you pray with confidence or assurance that your Father hears your prayers? Why do you expect God to answer your prayers? How does understanding more about what it means to pray in Jesus’ name encourage you in your prayers?

So: Praying in Jesus’ name means praying according to God’s will. We need to check our hearts when praying. Not only should we ask if our prayers are God’s will but we should also ask how we can be praying for God’s will for us. It means: Praying in Jesus’ name means praying with his authority. Do we really trust that God can answer our prayers? Lastly: Praying in Jesus’ name means praying with the expectation that God will hear and respond. Jesus says I will do it. So, it’s not about the words “in Jesus’ name.” We can pray in his name without these words. Praying in Jesus’ name is what it means to pray as a follower of Jesus. Praying in Jesus’ name means being in relationship with the God who through Jesus has given us new life, a Savior and Redeemer we can trust, who both wants to be at work in our lives and through our lives, including in and through our prayers.

Do We Resist the Holy Spirit?

As I began thinking about and working on my upcoming message for Sunday, I came across this question:

How many of us pause to consider the ways in which we inadvertently quench the Spirit’s work in our lives individually and in our churches corporately?

Sam Storms

How might an individual Christian do this? Maybe these are some questions to ask:

  1. Am I genuinely seeking God and taking time to be in his presence?
  2. Am I willing to be honest about where I need to repent, and to change direction in order to walk more closely with God?
  3. Do I want my way or God’s way and can I see the difference?

And what about churches? How might a church find itself resisting the work of the Spirit?

  1. Do our traditions or customary ways of doing ministry, organizing our programs, and encouraging engagement in church life get in the way of how God wants to lead us?
  2. Do we distinguish between what we do as church members and what we depend on God to do? Are some aspects of church life spiritual while others are practical? Do we truly rely on God for all aspects of church life?
  3. Is our focus on perpetuating the institution rather than on building relationships?

Maybe you can think of other questions.

The underlying point here is that we need the presence and power of God–which is made available to us in the person of the Holy Spirit–if we are going to be individual followers of Jesus and a life-giving community of faith.

The church needs the Spirit. Is this a need we recognize clearly enough?

May the Lord in his love and grace open our eyes to what we need to see more clearly. May we be willing to see.

Veni Sancte Spiritus.

“Come!”

This is from the last (and today’s) Advent Project devotional: the Scripture, reflection, and prayer.

I, Jesus, have sent My angel to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.” And the Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely.

Revelation 22:16-17

“There is nothing tribal about this water of life invitation. It has its own economy. There are no ‘water rights’ on this water of life; nothing justifies ‘mine, never thine’ possessiveness. The waters of life are new family-forming. You come to the waters, and find yourself taking and receiving with the other ‘whoever desires’ kin; the banks of the waters are called grace. Next to you on the banks is a Samaritan woman, a Tax Collector, a Centurion, a Prostitute, a Thief . . . At the waters of life, there is the simple word, ‘Come’. Will I believe that no-strings-attached invitation? Who or what will I permit to summon my life in 2022?”

Come, Holy Spirit, come.
Rise up within me rivers of living water.
Come and breathe on me, wind of God. Come, Lord Jesus, come.
Demonstrate your power to heal and release captives.
I welcome you as the Root and the Offspring of David, the Bright and Morning Star.
Come, Father of Lights, with whom there is no shifting shadows of change
Form my heart for your family of lights throughout your world. Amen.

May We Pray

May we pray that brothers and sisters in Christ—and church leaders especially—would give grace to one another even in the midst of our differences as we face these challenging times.

May we pray that our churches would become sanctuaries for the fearful, the lonely, the otherwise unaccepted, the spiritually undecided and curious, the hurting, and everyone needing the hope of the good news of Jesus.

May we pray that our pastors would find the encouragement, patience, friendship, and wisdom they require while providing care to their congregations and communities.

May we pray that our neighbours would turn to Christ as the one source of peace and hope in this tumultuous season.

May we pray that the people of God would be free to follow their consciences and obey the dictates of their faith while also respecting governing authorities.

May we pray that our governing authorities and political leaders would have the discernment and willingness to balance the various concerns of their constituents while making decisions surrounding COVID.

May we pray that our gracious Lord and God would see fit to hasten the end of the pandemic, the restrictions we have to follow, bring healing to people and relationships that have suffered as a result, and do so in a way that brings glory to his holy and wonderful name.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Amen and amen.

“Experiencing Love”

This is the last sermon from my Advent series. I preached it a week late, on this past Boxing Day, because of the previous week’s snowstorm.

Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also must love one another. No one has ever seen God. If we love one another, God remains in us and his love is made complete in us. This is how we know that we remain in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and we testify that the Father has sent his Son as the world’s Savior. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God—God remains in him and he in God. And we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and the one who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him.

1 John 4:7–16

It’s the most well-known Bible verse of all time, so well-known that people at football games would hold up banners just with the Bible reference. You know it well: John 3:16.  For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Another translation puts it this way: For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.And at the heart of John 3:16 is God’s love made known in the sending of the Son into the world to bring everlasting life.

And here we are. It’s the last Sunday of Advent. We’ve lit the last candle, the candle of love. And of all the themes of Advent, love is at risk of being the most sentimentalized and misunderstood.

When we think of John 3:16—and especially the part where it says For God so loved the world—we want to be careful to define love by understanding who God is—and what the Bible says—rather than define God (and his love) by our human experiences of love.

Often in our world love is defined as an emotion, by how we feel about this or that person. We say things like, “I love you SOOOO much!” That’s an expression of emotion. And while our emotions are a part of love, love is much, much more than that.

C.S. Lewis puts it this way: “Love is not affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” Think about that definition: Love is . . . a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good. That means that God’s “steady wish” for us—his ultimate will and desire for us—is to have eternal life, to be with him forever. Jesus comes into the world to make this happen. And all of this because God loves.

In our passage from 1 John 4, the apostle says this: God is love. God not only loves; he is love. Love is at the heart of who God is.

And so if want to understand what this love is like, we listen to what he did out of the overflow of his love. 1 John 4 continues: God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Sounds just like John 3:16.

The Greek language in the NT has several words for love, because there are different kinds of love. There’s the love between friends. There’s romantic love. But the word used of God is agape. David Nelmes explains it this way:

“Agape love [is] unconditional love that is always giving and impossible to take . . . It devotes total commitment to seek your highest best no matter how anyone may respond. This form of love is totally selfless and does not change whether the love given is returned or not.”

This is the love that God reveals in the sending of the Son, our Lord Jesus. This is the love that God is. And so it is with this kind of love that God loves you.

Do we believe God loves us? I mean, really believe it? Do we believe his love is unconditional or that he only loves us when we behave or perform?

Working on my message this week, I came across these words from Joseph Langford:

“The same God who loves us as we are also loves us too much to leave us as we are. Perhaps because we tend to hold to ideas about God that reflect our own suppositions and fears, more than God’s self-revelation. We reduce God to our own dimensions, ascribing to him our own reactions and responses, especially our own petty and conditional kind of love, and so end up believing in a God cast in our own image and likeness.”

Because here’s the thing: while I don’t think most of us believe God’s love is conditional, I also doubt we believe his love is unconditional. Not completely, anyway. Because I think we often live as though God’s love is semi-conditional. We say we believe his love is unconditional and that it doesn’t depend on our good behavior or how well we perform. Yet I think we often live differently. We live as though the way we act has an effect on his love for us.

For instance, do we ever avoid praying because we haven’t prayed in a while? Do we ever feel like maybe God is angry at us or disappointed with us?

Or to put it another way: Have you ever felt frustrated with God or even angry at him because even though you always go to church and put money in the offering plate, someone you love still got sick or something in your life went wrong?

In both cases, aren’t you basing God’s love for you on what you do, on how you live or behave? Either that your poor behavior keeps God from loving you or that your good behavior guarantees that he will? And does that sound like unconditional love to you? Aren’t you putting conditions on God’s love that God doesn’t? But isn’t this how we live sometimes?

I heard someone say this once: “Nothing you do (or don’t do) can make God love you more or love you less.” That’s unconditional love. That’s what it means to say that God is love.

So let me ask: Is this how you see God? Is this how you relate to God? Do you see God’s love for you as unconditional? And what might it mean—and how might it affect you—to believe that God’s love for you is unconditional?

Every day I tell my kids I love them. Most days, anyway. And often when I do, they will say, “I know. You tell me all the time.” I just want them to be sure. But making sure they know means more than saying words. I want my love to be perfectly unconditional. But it can’t be. Because I am flawed. I am sinful. I am broken. I show them I love them, yes, but imperfectly. Thankfully, God is perfect. Thankfully, his love is unconditional.

And ultimately, this is first and foremost how God loves. By perfectly showing us. By perfectly acting to bring about our ultimate good. As John 3:16 says, God loved the world in this way. How? By the sending of the Son into the world.

This is why the love candle is the penultimate candle in the Advent wreath (the last candle is traditionally the Christ candle, lit on Christmas Eve). The greatest of these is love, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13. And we know this precisely because by how God acted upon his love.

The coming of Christ into the world through the incarnation—which begins with the manger and ends with the cross and empty tomb—is both miracle and mystery. It’s simple enough for a child to grasp but yet deep enough for us grown-ups to forever ponder.

I’ve always loved how Eugene Peterson translated John 1:14: The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood. Best Christmas Bible verse ever. God loves you so much that he wants to move in next door. Better put, he wants to move right into your house.

To show us his love God came into our world. The second Person of the triune Godhead took on flesh, blood, and bone, confined himself to time and space, in order to demonstrate his love for us. The Creator entered his creation. The Painter entered his painting. 16th century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther once said, “The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding.”

And here’s the truth: this was the only way for us to come to know and experience God’s love. Only through the Son of God coming into the world. Only by God becoming human in Jesus. Only by Jesus going to the cross to remove the barrier between ourselves and God. That is the perfect, complete, and ultimate expression and demonstration of the love of God. To know Christ is to know God’s love.

By becoming one of us, God the Son pursues our ultimate God. By becoming one of us, God shows his unconditional love. By becoming one of us, God shows he is love.

While I am unable to comprehend this adequately or completely, I can receive this beautiful, wondrous truth and absorb it into my life. In fact, I can only receive it, trust it, and put my faith in it. I can’t wrap my mind around the God who was wrapped in swaddling clothes. But I can kneel. I can repent. I can worship. I can allow this love of God to take hold of me—or pray that God will take hold of me with it.

What about you? What keeps you from receiving or experiencing the love of God? Is it past or ever present hurts? Feelings of guilt or anger? Have you perhaps imagined God to be other than he is, as a tyrant looking to trip you up rather than as a Father looking to embrace you? Or as a distant, cold deity rather than as Emmanuel, God with us? Or as a legalistic rule-maker, rather than as the Good Shepherd who wants to lead you into wide, green pastures?

How do you need to experience the love of God this Christmas? Where does the light of his love need to shine into your life? Do you need his perfect love to dispel your fears? To bring you comfort?

If nothing else, Christmas ought to remind us that God is love. Christmas ought to remind us that God went to the utmost to give us his utmost. Christmas ought to remind us that God gives us the gift of himself.